‘Gloria?’ I whisper into the darkness of the ward. ‘Wake up.’
I have the torch of my phone lit so I can see her old eyes open slowly, all sleepy and cruddy.
‘D’you want to go to the zoo? To the black bears?’
I repeat myself twice to make sure she is certain. She nods wearily both times.
‘Grand,’ I say. I bring her to the bathroom first and sort her out, clean her up and dress her. She’s still hazy and soon as I strap her in the van between myself and Ben, she falls back into a deep sleep, like I had hoped.
We steal the van
We steal the old lady
We steal away.
I tick them off. The nursing home is oblivious to our heinous act. They would never have agreed to the journey from Sligo town all the way to Belfast zoo, they think she’s off to the garden centre and then to my Mum’s house, who often visits her- no, we’re going to see the bears.
We must have her back for teatime.
It was all because Gloria had been clamouring for Arthur more and more recently (it was coming up to the anniversary of his heart attack). The other volunteers would say to me Gloria is not all there, which is an awful auld way to put it if you ask me, as if bits of her have been chipped off over the years, as if it’s a natural part of the aging process, the same way her skin is creased like crumpled notepaper.
She’d ask me, ‘Art is coming today, isn’t he?’
‘I don’t think he is,’ I’d say.
‘No, he always comes on a Tuesday,’ she’d insist.
She’d get frantic so I’d take out her photo album from the bedside locker for us to leaf through together, it’s a good task for the amnesiacs, so they tell us at college.
And there’s pictures of her, snarky smile and overalls, beside a young man.
‘That’s me!’ Gloria would always say. ‘I wore trousers every day you know, one of the first female zookeepers in the country. Twas during the war when they needed us as replacement men, like. I was the only girl from my national school who got to see all the animals from our alphabet book, A is for Ant, B is for Bear, you know.’
‘Of course,’ she was proud. ‘And that’s Art beside me, that’s the day I met Art.’
‘Twas the day before they killed my Teddy,’ she’d continue, and her smile would fall, her mouth would start chuntering. ‘A lovely bear, he was, pure fluffy like. They killed him because of the air raids. And I only knew Arthur Storey from Dublin a day, but didn’t he go and buy me a lovely pink teddy bear with a bow to cheer me up.’
This much was true, I knew.
‘They’re bear killers,’ she’d say then. ‘Did you know, there’s not one single black bear left in the world? They’re all dead, dead of a sudden heart attack on the 18th of July.’
I would gently inform her, it’s not true, that this was her husband’s date of death. It would go all kinds of bad ways then. She was certain that there were no bears left in the world.
‘Nearly there,’ Ben says. ‘Bout half an hour now.’
I’m due to finish volunteering next week. I have placement in Blanchardstown, a world away from Gloria. I’d like to give her back the bears before I go.
Someone’s put tealights in the clouds, they’re all lit up and the sun rises as drippy and rich as an egg yolk. Ben and I make sparse conversation. Herself wakes up eventually. I’ve brought a flask full of sweet, milky tea and ham sandwiches, the three of us breakfast together.
We arrive at Belfast Zoo at 10 on the dot, take out the wheelchair and help Gloria into it. I tuck a scarf over her knees. You would never know she’d been kidnapped.
‘You ready?’ I ask her while Ben buys the tickets.
‘They’ll not be happy that I’ve not got my trousers on,’ she tells me. ‘The boss will eat the head of me.’
‘They’ll be ok with it today,’ I tell her.
I wheel her through the entrance. If it were up to me, I’d take her straight to the black bears, but she crows over chimpanzees and zebras and the reptile room. She’s not likely to get back here any time again so we stop and admire each one. Gloria is delighted with all the creatures. I am impatient.
Finally, we reach the bears.
The sign says Malayan sun bears, a more beautiful name I could never have thought of. Their black fur shines and their muscles ripple when they walk, and they have creamy coloured snouts. They are small, lumbering yokes, nowhere near the size I expected, and I hope this doesn’t confuse Gloria. The three of us, two ruffians and one kidnapped lady, are silent for some time.
‘My goodness,’ Gloria says at last. ‘They let them live, so they did.’
‘So, they did,’ I say.
‘And they’re not gone forever?’
‘I’d like that one,’ she points at the smallest one. ‘I’d take him home with me if I could, like a pet dog on the end of me bed.’
We leave the Malayan sun-bears and get Calippos from the gift-shop. I ask for a big pink teddy bear with a bow, the best they have is a medium black bear with no bow, I say it’ll do. I give it to Gloria.
We get into the van.
The sun is still beaming, the bears are sunbathing, I’m sure. We’re in a rush to make it back for Gloria’s teatime.
‘I miss Arthur,’ she says. ‘Arthur will get to see the sun bears, won’t he?’
‘He will,’ I say.
And we drive back to Sligo.
About the Author
Lea Mc Carthy is a 22-year-old from Sligo. She is in the final year of a degree in Italian and English with Creative Writing at NUIG. She has previously had work published in the Wild Words literary collection and screened at the National Irish Film Institute for the Fresh Film Festival. Lea has been scribbling stories since she was six years old and hopes to have a career in writing. She is particularly concerned with the writing of rural Irish lives, LGBTQ+ stories and forgotten narrators.